There’s been a pub on the site of this Soho institution since before the 1700s, although the current building at 7 Greek Street is believed to date from the start of the 20th century.

Pillars-of-HerculesThe pub’s name is an ancient one – it refers to two landmarks, the Rock of Gibraltar on the north side and Mount Hacho or Jebel Musa on the south side (there is apparently some dispute over which), that mark the entrance to the Mediterranean and are together known as the Pillars of Hercules. The name apparently comes from a legend that Hercules created the Strait of Gibraltar between them when pushed the two pillars apart apart and so separated Europe from Africa.

There’s been several pubs in London which have borne this name although this particular premises does get a mention in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (a street which runs under the pub’s archway is named after one of its characters, Dr Manette). There was apparently a similarly named tavern on the site of what is now Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner (that one gets a mention in Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling).

According to a sign on the pub, this Pillars of Hercules was also frequented by nineteenth century poet and cricket lower Francis Thompson, author of the poet The Hound of Heaven.

The current half-timbered pub – located just to the south of Soho Square – has apparently continued as a favoured locale for literary types. Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan are among more recent writers who have visited (along with Clive James who referred to it in the title of his collections of literary criticism, At the Pillars of Hercules).

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Soho-Square

Originally named King’s Square in honour of King Charles II, Soho Square was laid out on what had been known as Soho Fields as a residential square with a garden at its centre in the late 1670s – part of the general demand for homes that came about after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

A fashionable place to live when built, among the early mansions was Monmouth House, a grand mansion originally built for James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth (and illegitimate son of King Charles II who lost his head after leading a rebellion against King James II) and later used by the French ambassador before it was demolished in the 1770s. Two of the square’s original homes are located at numbers 10 and 15.

A number of trees and shrubs were recorded as being planted here including cherry, peach and almond trees as well as lilacs, jessamine and honeysuckle – it’s suggested these may have been chosen by botanist Sir Joseph Banks who lived at number 32 from 1777 until his death in 1820.

King-Charles-IIThe square, which was opened to the public in 1954, is today at the heart of the West-End district of Soho, once synonymous with late night entertainment including the sex industry but also home to a growing number of film and media-related organisations (for a look at the derivation of the name Soho, see our earlier post).

Indeed, a number of media companies are based in the square itself – British Movietone, which was produced the Movietone news, was located here at number 22 for years while current inhabitants include Twentieth Century Fox (located in a building at number 31-32 where the botanically minded Linnean Society once met).

Other buildings of note in the square include the French Protestant Church, built in 1891-93 and located at numbers eight and nine and St Patrick’s Church, located at on the corner of Soho Square and Sutton Row. While a chapel was first consecrated here in 1792, the current building dates from the 1890s (reopened in 2011 after a £3.5 million restoration) and has catacombs which spread a considerable distance under the square. In a nod to less savoury aspects of the square’s past, the White House Brothel was also located here – at number 21 – in the late 18th century (the building is now known as Manor House).

The oldest statue in the square is that of Caius Gabriel Cibber’s King Charles II which dates from 1681 (pictured right) – a reminder of the square’s past name.  Originally part of a larger monument containing a fountain, it was removed in 1875 to make way for the distinctive half-timbered Tudor-style hut (pictured above) used by gardeners which, having been rebuilt in the 1930s, currently sits at the square’s centre and only returned to the gardens in 1938. There’s also a bench in the square which commemorates the late singer Kirsty MacColl, writer of the song Soho Square.

For more on London’s squares, see Gary Powell’s Square London.

What’s in a name? – Soho

September 6, 2010

The first in an occasional series looking behind some of London’s place names. To kick it off, we’re taking a look at the origins of the name of the inner metropolitan suburb of Soho.

The name was apparently taken from a hunting cry – ‘So Ho’  and is believed to have been first used to describe this area of London in the 1600s (the cry was also later used as a rallying cry by the James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth’s men when he tried to overthrow James II at the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685).

The area was used as grazing lands before becoming part of Henry VIII’s hunting grounds and then in the later 1600s started to undergo development, becoming known as a refuge for immigrants from Greece and France (the French Protestant Church on Soho Square is indicative of the diverse population who have lived there).

It later morphed into a somewhat seedy and bohemian entertainment district and became home to some big name writers, artists, intellectuals and musicians. Over the years, famous residents have included everyone from Karl Marx to poet William Blake.

These days, while elements of entertainment industry remain – in particular the film industry as well as some seedier establishments – the area, bordered by Oxford and Regent Streets, Charing Cross Road and Piccadilly Circus to the south, is also home to large numbers of trendy cafes, pubs and restaurants and still boasts a healthy nightlife.

Around London…

August 6, 2010

London’s bicycle hire scheme is up and running. The scheme was launched at the end of July and boasts 5,000 bikes which can be found at 315 docking stations. More than 21,000 people signed up in the first weeks and some of the early popular hire sites included Soho Square, Drury Lane in Covent Garden and Wardour Street. The bikes are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Members of the scheme must be 18 years old and you must be at least 14 years old to ride the bikes. A membership key costs £3 while the membership itself costs at £1 for a 24-hour membership, £5 for seven days and £45 for an annual membership. The first 30 minutes of any journey is then free (with fees applicable after that). As the bikes don’t come with a lock, it’s expected people will simply make a journey to another docking station before getting off. For more information on the Barclay’s Cycle Hire scheme, see Transport for London’s website at www.tfl.gov.uk. Meanwhile, in other transport news, the first air-conditioned Tube train is now in active service on the Metropolitan Line.

A cafe has been opened at Buckingham Palace, 173 years after Queen Victoria first moved in following her accession to the throne. Located on the West Terrace overlooking the lawn and lake, the Garden Café is open during visiting hours. The Palace’s State Rooms, meanwhile, are open to the public until 1st October. The palace this year hosts The Queen’s Year exhibition which features displays of ceremonial robes, gifts, uniforms, dresses and jewellery, as well as archive photography and film in an illustration of the monarch’s work throughout the year at everything from the State Opening of Parliament to the Garter Day ceremony at Windsor Castle and investitures, garden parties and State Visits. Entry to the State Rooms – which comprise just 19 of the palace’s 775 rooms – is £17.00 an adult, £15.50 concessions, £9.75 for under 17s and under fives are free. Family tickets are £45 and combined tickets – including the Royal Mews and the Queen’s Gallery – are also available. www.royalcollection.org.uk/default.asp?action=article&ID=30. For more on the special exhibition, see www.royalcollection.org.uk/microsites/thequeensyear/

The Tower of London was the most visited royal site in Britain last year, attracting 2.4 million tourists, according to a report from VisitBritain. The tourism agency found that while overseas tourists spent some £4.6 billion while in the UK last year, more than £500 million was spent on tourism associated with the Royal Family. The top 10 most visited sites included several royal attractions – Edinburgh Castle came in at number six with 1.2 million visitors, Windsor Castle at number seven with 987,000 and Buckingham Palace at number 11 with 402,000. Other top London sites included the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (#2 – 2.4 million), the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington (#3 – 2.3 million), St Paul’s Cathedral (#4 – 1.8 million), Westminster Abbey (#5 – 1.4 million) and Hampton Court Palace (#9 – 541,646).